Wednesday, November 26, 2014

November 30, Advent 1: The Mission #2, God's Coming

 Isaiah 64:1-9, Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18, 1 Corinthians 1:3-9, Mark 13:24-37

Today is Advent Sunday number 1, which means it’s the beginning of the new Church Year, which means we switch to a new gospel for the year, from Matthew to Mark. We take up in Mark where we ended with Matthew, at the end of Our Lord’s last speech on the last day of his public ministry before his passion. Here too, as in Matthew last week, Our Lord is speaking of his Ascension. Matthew had him describe it in the form of the parable of the sheep and the goats, derived from the prophet Ezekiel

 Mark has him describe it just as metaphorically, but metaphysically, with cosmological images derived from the prophets Isaiah and Daniel: the Son of Man, a human being, will rise upon the clouds of heaven to enter the glory of God and take the throne of God, to govern all things and to judge the nations and to gather his people from the ends of the earth.

This was a daring prediction to make, and troubling to his disciples, for if the Son of Man is the Messiah, and if the Messiah gets enthroned in heaven, not Jerusalem, then Jerusalem will lose its special status as God’s capital. This would be a huge shakeup, the disciples’ world turned upside down, but Jesus said it would begin to happen in their own lifetime, and, from the later church’s point of view, it did indeed.

The metaphysical images can confuse us, because we understand astronomy so differently, so let me restate it: The sun, moon, and stars represent the powers of heaven authorized to govern the times and seasons, and these cosmic powers will witness a human being, a Son of Man, ascending past them on the clouds of heaven, rising to a status above them, where flesh and blood do not belong, and his elevation is such a shock and a shaking of nature that their lights go out and the stars fall. They witness a human being upon the throne of God.

How far can we push these metaphors? What are the realities behind them? How shall we today imagine heaven? Like in the Harry Potter books, an alternate reality coterminous with our own but impervious to us ordinary muggles? No, that will not do, for the world of wizards is just as evil as our own, while the Biblical heaven is where righteousness dwells and where God’s will is always done. 
“Thy will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven.”

I prefer the metaphor of an aquarium, in which we are the fish, and we cannot see out. When we fish look at the glass walls around us we can only see our own reflections. But what’s on the outside can look right in. I imagine our reality as a great terrarium set within the vastly greater living room of heaven. All metaphors have their limits, but can you imagine that the coming of God into the world is not so much a traveling of God as the revealing of God, the unveiling of God — drawing back the curtains of a cold dark room to let the light in from the great outside. What separates us from heaven is not God’s distance but our mental limits and our blindness and our darkness.

“Oh, that you would tear open the heavens and come down.” We have this strange longing for God to come into our world. We have this season of Advent designed to celebrate and stimulate this longing. It is not a given in religion. Muslims do not long for God to come into the world; to think that Allah should come into the world is an offense his nature. In other religions, as in Hinduism, the gods are already part of the world, for the world itself is divine. But we Jews and Christian have this strange desire that the God who freely created the world, and who therefore is not part of it, should in any case come into it, not just to enjoy it, but to rescue us, to save us, to restore us.

Why, what’s wrong? Do we really need restoration or rescuing? And what is the saving? Is it the saving of our souls from hell at the end? Does God come into the world like a lifeguard, pulling us out of the world and bringing us to heaven, because we really don’t belong in this world anyway? Or does God mean to save the world as well?

God comes into the world more like a marine biologist coming to rescue a whale that’s entangled in a net, and cutting the net away, and saving us back into the world we were created for. We are to long for what Our Lord instructed us to pray for, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Since God’s will is already done on earth, but not as in heaven, and since God’s kingdom has come on earth, but not as in heaven, this is a prayer for God's final goal on earth. Our prayer is that God restore the earth to the full and righteous fellowship of heaven, when we will be able to see beyond our own reflections.

The word Advent means approach, and we are longing for God’s approach. We talk about the presence of God. We believe that God is present with us. But Advent reminds us that God could come a little closer, or more apparently, or more powerfully. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.” Get closer God, the world is incomplete — your presence may be real, but it’s not enough. We’re in bondage, our prayers are unanswered, the bad guys are winning, the houses are burning, the stores are being looted, the young Black men despair.

Advent is penitential season, like Lent, but its emphasis is different. Lent is when you do self-examination. It has grief in it. Advent is more about awareness. It has longing in it. Your awareness of the world in all its brokenness and emptiness and need is your longing for its restoration in the great reality outside. Your discontent is not disavowal — what is to come, comes into what is now.

As God came in. As Jesus Christ was born, and as he will come again. I have said that God is on mission, that the mission of God is to come into the world to renew and restore the world. And between his coming once as a child and his coming again as Lord he comes now in many ways, in hidden ways, by his Spirit, and in open ways, by his Word, and in real though passing and partial ways in us, the church, which is his body. And that gives us our mission too, in this time in between.

You have a mission yourself. Your mission is to begin with your own penitence, your own confession of your sin, your own awareness of yourself, and then also to be aware of your experience of God’s grace to you, your own forgiveness, your own sense of reconciliation and the renewal of your hope and love. But you do this as mission, for your awareness of the larger world and for the experience of other people, who themselves need to experience the passage of guilt and grace and gratitude. Your Advent awareness of yourself with God is not least for your awareness of the larger world and God. You don’t do this for yourself alone. When you pray the prayer of confession today you are doing it beyond yourself, and that is the beginning of your mission.

The Epistle speaks of the spiritual gifts of speech and knowledge. This is for your mission. So let me give you an example of knowledge and awareness. My friends in Canada asked me why the people of Ferguson, Missouri expressed their legitimate complaint in such negative acts of violence and destruction. A fair question. But there are answers, not to excuse but to understand, and understood for the sake of reconciliation and restoration.

Thirteen years ago, in Pasadena, I heard a sermon from a remarkable Anglican priest from South Africa. Both of hands were hooks, because he had been anti-apartheid activist, and one day he had opened a letter which actually was bomb. He said that, even coming from South Africa, he was distressed at the racial alienation in America. He said that for healing to happen, it wasn’t enough to tell your story. It’s only when your story is believed that begins the reconciliation.

That’s why you are given the spiritual gift of knowledge, that you go from the awareness of yourself to the awareness of other people, bypassing the bombast and recriminations, but in that special Advent combination of penitence and hope to bear witness to how God comes into the world, just as God has come into your own life. You are given the spiritual gift of speech to tell your story too. You may believe today that telling the spiritual story of your life is a great part of your mission. People don’t want to hear why what you think is right and what they think is wrong — what people want to hear is your story.

So I call you to a deep awareness of your own story for the sake of the stories of others. And this is not for guilt, it’s for love. It’s like Mary becoming aware of this baby she’s holding. The penitence of Advent is not about sorrow but all about love.

Copyright © 2014 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

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